Shaping a loveable liveable Lion City

Can a city of 6.9 million be both liveable and loveable? What goes into making a city liveable anyway?
Grace Chua Straits Times 21 Feb 13;

THE recent Population White Paper had Singapore's planners declaring their aim of making Singapore "a city which is liveable, lively and well-loved".

Singaporeans hear the term "liveability" bandied about - particularly in international rankings of the island-state against other cities. There's even a whole think-tank, the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), dedicated to it under the auspices of the Ministry of National Development.

But what does liveability mean? It depends on whom you're talking to.

International rankings like the Quality of Life ranking by human resources firm Mercer and one from the Economist Intelligence Unit are specifically used to work out how much an international firm might pay employees to live and work in Moscow, Melbourne or Mumbai. These take into account economic strength, political stability, health care, environment, safety, education and transport, among other measures.

These are important, but most people don't pick where to live based on liveability rankings. So liveability needs to be relevant to a wider range of people than business executives.

So what kind of liveable city would appeal to "real" people?

Dr Dietmar Hahlweg, the highly regarded former mayor of the German city of Erlangen, wrote: "The liveable city is a city for all people. That means that the liveable city should be attractive, worthwhile, safe for our children, for our older people, not only for the people who earn money there and then go and live outside in the suburbs and in the surrounding communities."

For one, there needs to be a clearer distinction between "stayability", which is short term, and liveability, which is about how nice a place is for people to live in, to put down roots and call home.

Indeed, speakers of Singapore English often use the words "stay" and "live" interchangeably, as a direct translation from the Malay word "tinggal". In fact, "stay" refers to a short-term stint, while "live" refers to a long-term one.

Hard or soft?

THE ingredients of liveability could be divided into hard and soft ones.

Hard or concrete liveability might mean: Can I get a better job with higher pay? Is the air polluted or clean? Are crime rates low? Can I get a hospital bed when I need one?

Singapore scores well on these indicators. Others include working water pipes and rail lines; energy consumption; economic growth; even levels of corruption or the presence and enforcement of anti-pollution laws and safeguards.

"Soft" liveability could refer to less tangible measures such as cultural tolerance and diversity. Is the city friendly to those who are different? How does it treat those - within and beyond its boundaries - who are less privileged?

Is there income equity, as well as equity of access to decision-making? (An analogy: If you are a transient renter, you don't get to have much say in what colour you paint the walls. But if you own your home, you get a say within your household on what goes on the walls, how you want the furniture to be arranged and so on.)

Five years ago, the CLC commissioned the more comprehensive Global Liveable Cities Index, comprising measures of economic vibrancy, environmental friendliness and sustainability, social harmony and cultural diversity, security and governance.

In that index, income equality, social harmony and cultural diversity are measured by things like the Gini coefficient, a measure of the gap between the wealthiest and poorest; by the percentage of foreigners or immigrants, by the number of religions and by attitudes towards foreign visitors.

National University of Singapore associate professor Tan Khee Giap, who led the development of the index, explained that the index is useful for governments to gauge how they fare and where they need to improve.

While progress on hard liveability measures is usually quite clear, some soft liveability goals contradict each other. For example, cultural or heritage elements make neighbourhoods like Chinatown or Tiong Bahru authentic, which make them desirable.

But when a neighbourhood becomes too desirable, driving up home prices, the resulting gentrification as wealthier residents move in can drive out the very elements, such as incense shops or traditional bakeries, that make them authentic and desirable in the first place.

Whatever their use, liveability rankings only go so far. Rankings, after all, pit cities against each other - comparing Zurich to Hong Kong, Manila to Teheran.

For those who live there, what's more important is how liveable the city is over time - whether the quality of life progresses or deteriorates.

And a city can have a high standard of living, but a poor quality of social life.

Liveable or loveable?

OR AS Nominated Member of Parliament Janice Koh asked in Parliament recently: "It is one thing to build a liveable city. The harder question is: How do we build a loveable one?"

Fellow NMP Faizah Jamal suggested that "well-being goes beyond gross domestic product growth". Instead, "it is about fulfilling careers, emotional security, equitable distribution of wealth, affordable housing, health care and education, and factors in the existence of places that evoke childhood memories, natural spaces and access to these places".

That suggests people yearn for a sense of place in their hometown - spaces and buildings that connect them to their past even as the city forges on to the future.

If you merely stay somewhere, you might not mind if the landlord comes in to renovate or repaint, since you aren't going to be there long. But if you have settled on a permanent abode, constant change is like someone barging in to renovate your home and change the furniture every year.

There is a fine line, perhaps different for different people, between progress and disorientation.

Apart from giving people a sense of ownership, a loveable city might be one which is child-friendly. Or as urban planning consultant Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard of the International Making Cities Liveable Council in Oregon notes, that does not mean playgrounds or enrichment centres, but "walkability" that allows children to explore their built and natural environment independently.

Check in on your neighbours

THEN there is resilience, another component of making a city loveable.

In a 1995 Chicago heatwave, two equally low-income neighbourhoods were a study in contrasts: in one, a dying neighbourhood with little social cohesion, lonely older men died alone of the heat, as there was no one to look in on them.

In the other, neighbours and church members went door to door to check on each other, and it had the same mortality rate as a much richer neighbourhood.

Singapore may technically be able to house 6.9 million people not unpleasantly, but would neighbours, so recently strangers, look out for each other if another Sars epidemic hit?

Infrastructure and technology can help promote such soft liveability.

For instance, instead of "checking in" to locations on Facebook or Foursquare, can you literally check in with your neighbours on an app from the local community development council?

In a hometown, one might also want a sense of autonomy and control over what happens, and the speed of what happens. Today, there are several not-in- my-backyard protests over the prospective development of space for nursing homes, for example. Protesters are spurred by a sense that the city is developing too fast around them.

Planners could do more to plan for unplanned space. What does that mean? Today, there are open fields such as in Old Holland Road and Marina Bay, where people fly kites and remote-controlled planes or play soccer or cricket until planning authorities decide they should be used for something else. And at the Kreta Ayer town square in Chinatown, older men sit and play Chinese chess and line-dancing groups go through their routines. At least a few of these unplanned spaces should be dedicated spaces for such activities, not interim empty space.

Just as a stable political climate encourages investment, a stable spatial climate could encourage social investment in the community, with people coming up with new and creative temporary uses of the space instead of protesting when it is to be turned into nursing homes or new blocks.

In the end, liveability measures are static snapshots that assume people are passive consumers of their city.

But "city-zens" have the autonomy to shape a city: to plant trees, start new businesses and invent new technologies, organise volunteers to cook for lonely old folk, start running groups that pick up trash as they go.

When people feel they care enough to make their common space a better one for themselves and their neighbours, that is when a city becomes loveable.